In his courtroom address during the Rivonia Trial in 1964 at the end of which he was convicted and sent to Robben Island for 27 years, Nelson Mandela argued that many ideals inspired him to challenge apartheid in South Africa, one of which was the Magna Carta, the document whose 800th anniversary was celebrated on Monday in London and in many parts of the world.

And on the same Monday, Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s third president, revealed how small a man he is compared to South Africa’s first, by letting Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who was visiting Johannesburg for an African Union summit, leave from an airbase, even as a court in South Africa was hearing a petition which sought al-Bashir’s arrest for war crimes in Sudan. Al-Bashir is wanted by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and it is the duty of all countries that are state parties (which South Africa is) to follow its instructions. But in Zuma’s Orwellian logic drawn from Animal Farm, some are more equal than others.

Magna Carta (the great charter) is an ancient, dense document that many consider to be the fountainhead of human rights.

In 1215, England’s ruler was King John (who was terrible even by the standards of that time—he had jailed his wife, got a nephew murdered, and believed that starving prisoners was a fair punishment) who imposed taxes on barons to fight wars abroad and seized their property if they didn’t pay up. The barons rebelled. The king surrendered. In June 1215, the barons and the king met in Runnymede, south of the river Thames and not far from where London’s Heathrow airport stands today.

The long document contains many topics relevant eight centuries ago, but what rouses the spirits of many in the English-speaking world (besides Mandela, it has inspired Thomas Jefferson in the US and Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and India) is this passage:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."

It placed limits on a ruler’s power and stated, clearly, that leaders must comply with the law; that they are not above the law.

But the rights it enunciated were circumscribed severely, available only to “free men", which in those days meant the landed gentry; peasants who toiled in the fields were not considered free, and women, of course, had to wait more than seven centuries to get voting rights.

To be sure, Magna Carta influenced several charters and laws, and its echoes are found in the US constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and indeed, its spirit is found in the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution.

But the conceit is the assertion that human rights emerged from Magna Carta, which was simply an arrangement between a bad king and the elite who no longer wanted to fund his military misadventures abroad. Canonizing Magna Carta alone reinforces the view human rights are the West’s gift to humanity. That assumption undermines the more important fact, that human rights are universal.

Civilization began with equality. The idea of discrimination—that men are superior to women, that those lighter-skinned are more important than the darker-skinned, that those who speak one language are more significant than those who speak another, that those who perform certain tasks are of a higher class or caste than those who perform other tasks, that those who worship one god (or many, or none) trump those who worship different gods, goddesses, or none—came later.

The elite, and those with power, in different contexts, created hierarchies to consolidate their power and safeguard their interests.

Magna Carta was one instrument in wresting back that authority. But there were many others, and some of them much earlier—think of the code of Hammurabi, the philosophy of the Greeks, the moral philosophy found in the Analects of Confucius, or the ethics found in the edicts of Ashoka. These ancient codes were not necessarily all-inclusive and perfect. But each contributed towards designing the architecture of human rights, and each did so by stressing equality, by enabling the powerless to hold the powerful accountable, and by respecting dignity, to recreate the world as it was meant to be, where each of us is equal, regardless of whatever makes us appear different. That’s the ideal Mandela struggled for, that’s what Gandhi believed in; that’s what Zuma this week, and many others, including Indira Gandhi 40 years ago next Thursday, forgot. The underlying value of human rights and equality is not only 800 years old; it began with humanity and will end when civilization ends.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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